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Empty leaders for imaginary voters

31 Jul 2022 5 minute read
Mini-Men Mechanics by Jenn Durfey is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Ben Wildsmith

There are a great many things at which I am absolutely useless. If I manage to perform a task like, say, changing a lightbulb, Mrs. W. smiles indulgently at me as one might at a toddler who has tied his shoelaces for the first time.

For the most part, however, I am discouraged by all around me from interfering in areas of life where I have no business. Consequently, I’ve had a lot of experience in dealing with professional tradespeople across the vast array of disciplines that are beyond my mastery.

I’ve found that it’s wise to be cheerfully open about my own utter ignorance when in the company of someone who knows what they are talking about.

‘So, that’s how you open the bonnet, I’ve always been afraid to ask,’ seems to go down far better with Johnny Expert than,

‘Obviously, I’ve tried flushing the alternator with WD40 but I’m not familiar with the rivet alignment on the Mark 3, which is why I’ve had to call you.’

One shot

The latter approach betrays a psychological tic that can befall the unwary in middle age:  a reluctance to believe that one is less than adequate in any area.

Working for people like this must be a nightmare. Not only do you have to do the job, but also pretend that the client’s grasp of the situation is on a level with your own.

Of course, the middle-aged know-all is guaranteed to be at the polling station by 6.55AM every single election, so dealing with this lot is the stock in trade of politicians the world over.

Where plumbers and mechanics have the advantage over candidates is that there is always another customer round the corner.

Politicians have one shot every five years to create a good impression and they must make it with people who will actually vote.

This is why we see them painfully trying to second-guess the values of people they would cross the street to avoid under normal circumstances.


At this week’s hustings in Leeds, Ready4Rishi opted to open with a ‘Brown person with a suntan’ joke that could have been from a 1976 edition of The Comedians.

It’s hard to know what to be offended at first about that.

The scenarios I can identify are these:

  • Ready4Rishi just assumes his own party members like a bit of race-based humour and couldn’t care less about it.
  • The Tory party membership is so racist that he’s been told his only chance of winning favour is by joining in.
  • Those involved believe racial sensitivity to be redundant since Alesha Dixon won Strictly so we should all chillax and take a joke.

Awkwardly, the audio suggested that the gag was received in silence other than by two guffawing men whose nephews are already dreading Christmas.

Whatever assumptions the speechwriters were operating under seem to have been wide of the mark.

You see, much as some of us might prefer the mechanic to nod along respectfully to our misdiagnosis of a fault in the spherical flange, we’re not nuts enough to demand they act on it rather than actually fixing the problem.

It would be reassuring to think that politicians made policy from a combination of personal conviction and expertise.

Appealing to us by pretending to be as thick as they assume us to be used to be the preserve of tabloid editors; now it is so embedded in political practice that appointing Nadine Dorries to the cabinet merely lent authenticity to the crass banality our leaders think they should embody.


Which brings me to Kier Starmer.

Sirkieth the Cautious arrives to fix your car in a set of overalls but is so worried about upsetting you that he pronounces it good for another 100 000 miles and sacks anybody who points out that all that’s left of it is a clown holding a steering wheel.

Reading the moment is a core skill in politics and if you lead a party called ‘Labour’ which everyone knows was founded by the trade unions, then refusing to pick a side when the entire nation is being offered pay cuts after 12 years of austerity is a baffling decision.

Sirkieth’s imaginary voter looks at a payslip that doesn’t cover the gas bill and sighs, ‘Thank God I can’t go to the pub this weekend. Sirkieth’s dogmatic adherence to Treasury principles has helped me to play my part in stabilising the economy.’

This mythical working man wakes up every morning terrified that Red Robbo has risen from the dead to resume a demarcation dispute from 1978.

Historically, politicians didn’t care at all what we thought.

On one side you had the raw power of the Establishment threatening you with penury or worse; on the other, bright, self-educated plebs brandishing clever ideas from books they’d read.

T’internet has fooled us all into thinking we have agency, and our politicians now offer absolutely nothing other than what they have been told we think ourselves.

We have leaders whose followers are figments of their imagination.

Best go on a car maintenance course.

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Steve George
Steve George
1 year ago

Good column.

1 year ago

Yn anffodus yn wir iawn

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 year ago

One man one job…vs Linked-in politicians, jacks of all trades presenting themselves as polymaths when really they are butterfly dilettantes or worse, chancers and con-men who have briefly held many positions just to fill their phone book…speed dating for Etonians and Oxbridge types or the lesser spotted backbenchers who lobby, conspire, profit, influence behaviour of ministers to pass legislation that will sooner rather than later have us face extinction. Executive powers are the new Politburo of the Senedd, who said we wanted nuclear power, our very own ‘sofa government’ decides with a little linked-in help from their mates in ‘industry’,… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by Mab Meirion
1 year ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

“Linked-in politicians” is one of the most apt terms I’ve read. Duly stolen.

Valerie Matthews
Valerie Matthews
1 year ago

I am almost convinced Starmer has been put in place by the ‘Establishment’ to destroy Labour. This man is a Knight of the Realm, a Millionaire, an ex Director of Public Prosecutions, and a Member of the Trilateral Commission. How much more ‘Establishment’ can one get??

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 year ago

How many paid £3 to vote for Corbyn

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